There’s a small bay on the Maryland side of the Potomac River, 30 miles south of Washington, D.C., that is an eerie final resting place for hundreds of ships. More than 230 were scuttled here, and most of them were never put into service.
In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson rallied the nation to join World War I. Germany’s submarine offensive was fearsome, and the United States was woefully unprepared.
To counter the Kaiser’s forces, the nation would have to launch the greatest shipbuilding program in history; 1,000 wooden steamships would need to be built within 18 months. Each vessel in the fleet would be 240 to 300 feet, the total built from 1.5 million board feet of yellow pine or Douglas fir.
On Dec. 1, 1917, the first ship was launched in the Pacific. Almost a year later, only 134 wooden steamships had been built and 263 were less than half-finished. When Germany surrendered, a grand total of zero had crossed the Atlantic.
A congressional inquiry soon followed. Vessels were alleged to have been poorly designed, the construction was shoddy and the boats leaked. Years of debate followed about what to do with the obsolete armada. After many twists and turns, the wooden fleet was towed to Mallows Bay and torched.
You can visit Mallows Bay today by kayak and see the eerie remains of the largest shipwrecked fleet in the Western Hemisphere. It has been nominated to become a National Marine Sanctuary.
For much more on this spooky story, read Ghost Fleet of Mallows Bay and Other Tales of the Lost Chesapeake by Donald G. Shomette.